(an excerpt from The Promise of Despair)
It was early Spring. Only piles of dirty snow remained, plowed in midwinter into huge mounds to clear parking lots and driveways, now slowly melting like glaciers. These dirty snow mounds stood as monuments to the long winter we had survived. Winter had broken and the warmth and energy of a new season was upon us. It was only fifty degrees, but after a winter mostly near or below zero, a day of near fifty degrees brings out shorts, Frisbees, and filled sidewalks in the upper Midwest. I would imagine it an absurd sight to a Californian or Floridian to see pale, pasty people excitedly walking in shorts and tank tops, reveling in forty-five degrees. And even for us, a forty-five-degree day in September comes with complaints and the layering of sweatshirts. But after the cold winter forty-five or fifty degrees is the mercy that promises that summer is on its way, that the cold is behind us, making forty-five or fifty feel like eighty, therefore deserving absurd celebration.
It was in the middle of this seasonal transition that Kara’s (my wife’s) grandfather died. It was not unexpected; he was in his mid-eighties and suffering from dementia and other ailments. Already removed from his own house, he was spending what seemed inevitably his final months with his daughters and grandchildren. The early spring phone call that brought the news came expectedly, but with sadness. Kara knew that he was fading, but word now that he was gone nevertheless forced her breath from her, sending her chest to chase it with quick inhales. “Granddad is gone,” she said as she hung up the phone. Collecting herself she loaded our son Owen into the car and left for church.
Halfway to church her rational side, which knew that this was inevitable, dissolved, and on the 94 freeway she started to sob. Wiping her tears she looked in the rearview mirror, tipping it to see Owen, who was pinned to his car seat by the straps that gripped his freshly retrieved spring coat that came from our basement. “I’m crying because I am sad, Owen,” Kara said. “Why?” asked Owen, a question that so easily slips from his lips that he often asks it to his own answers. Kara continued, attentively, recognizing this “why” was not just the constant activity of his little mind, but had it origins in the presence of her tears. “I’m sad,” she said forthrightly, “because my grandpa is dead. Granddad is gone and that makes me sad.” Owen sat quietly for a few seconds, attentively looking out the window as Kara took deep breaths and wiped away her tears.
As they exited the freeway, Owen broke the silence, his face lighting up, “But mommy!” Owen said, lowering his voice and leaning forward with a dramatic stage whisper. “I have a secret! In the end Jesus is coming back and death will die and Granddad will be alive again!” He leaned back in great satisfaction, and with eyes wide open, he concluded by nodding and reiterating, “Mommy, it’s a secret!”
And it is a secret! It is not the kind of secret that is kept because you want to keep to yourself whatever information you possess. It isn’t a secret because we are shameful of what such knowledge might mean. It is a secret because it is the most beautiful, wonderful thing that could be imagined.
Death dying, death being no more, never again able to separate; all those lost will be found. It is a secret because it is so wonderful and beautiful that the earth shakes with anticipation that it might be true. It is a secret because everything else in our lives points in the other direction. It is a secret because it is the most wonderful of hopes that though our creaturely destiny is death, this destiny has been split through, revealing a new reality where life comes out of death.
And this, after all, is hope. We tend to think that hope is optimism, that to be a hopeful person is to be a person who is always looking on the bright side, who is positive. And I’m not saying it is bad to be positive; positive people tend to have a lot of friends, tend to be easy to be around. I’m always shocked watching Sesame Street at how positive Elmo is and how his positive disposition is so attractive. Elmo is one optimistic little dude! But I wouldn’t call Elmo hopeful.
Hope is different from optimism in its very orientation to time. Optimism clothes itself in the present, seeking to make the present good through positive thinking. Optimism says this terrible job isn’t that bad; I’m confident that if I stay upbeat my dream job will be right around the corner. Optimism, then, is cemented in the present, seeking positivity to make tomorrow’s present better (more enjoyable and happier) than today.
We all need some optimism. Optimism isn’t bad, but hope stands in an altogether different orientation to time. Hope is born in the future—a future that is not out ahead us, but that is a completely new reality, even now in small ways breaking into our lives. Hope is trust that though the monster of death may take me, though death may strike me, it cannot destroy me, for a future is on its way that stands in direct opposition to my present. A future is on its way that has no place for death, where death has been extracted and destroyed, where death has been evaporated by the white hot heat of God’s Love. This future (in its finality) is not here yet, but hope knows that it is on its way.
Hope is qualitatively different from optimism, because hope bears death; hope seeks a future not by ignoring or denying death (looking on the bright side) but by living through it. Hope seeks to live honestly in the now by giving its attention to the future, seeking for the future even now to break into our lives.
And it is a secret because it is an altogether different reality that we hope for. Optimism needs no secret, because it is looking for the silver lining in the present of this reality. Optimism speaks incessantly, fearing that if it stops framing this reality in a positive manner it will be annihilated by the nothingness all around us. But hope is a secret that calls for silence, contemplation, and deep reflection.
Hope bubbles up from deep within our being that is so close to nothingness, making its way to our lips in fear and trembling. We find ourselves choking on the wonder of its possibility; we find that contemplating it forces us to speak lower; because we are hoping in an altogether different reality, in the dawn of God’s future, where death is not optimistically given face paints and cotton candy to hold, but is obliterated in the fullness of life in God’s Love. Hope is a secret because it is trust in a wholly new reality, not just this reality shined with the spit of optimistic positivity.
Easter is the proclamation in this world of death that the altogether new reality of God’s future has dawned. That God in Godself has been resurrected and overcomes death and now promises us that our deaths will die, that a new future beyond death is opened to us. It is a hope made possible by entering death, by entering and overcoming death with life—forevermore in Godself and soon to be for us too.
And this then is our ultimate hope, hope that comes through death. We hope as we trust that all our suffering, yearning, and brokenness has been taken by the Spirit and placed between the Love of the Father for the Son, a Love that is stronger than death by going through death. All those who despair can, in the power of the Spirit, take hope, for they are enveloped in the Love of Father and Son. Through their despair God is coming to them; in their despair God gives God’s very person so that an altogether new reality might dawn from the future.